As an economist living in Washington County, I’m often asked about the number of “snowbirds” that flock to the area. Snowbirds are older individuals who migrate south to warmer climes during the cold winter months. Despite the vast amount of data available, I don’t have a definitive answer to the snowbird question. No one counts them — not even the U.S. Census Bureau. However, based on personal observation, the “20 percent of the population” figure typically quoted does not seem remotely accurate. After all, 20 percent of the Washington County permanent population would equal 30,000 extra winter-time residents. That’s equivalent to the populations of Washington City and Ivins combined or almost half of St. George City.
While the Census Bureau doesn’t exactly count snowbirds, it does track the number of homes vacant due to “seasonal, recreational or occasional use” through the American Community Survey. In Utah, less than 5 percent of homes are registered in the seasonal/recreational/occasional use category. Nationally, the rate measured an even lower 4 percent. As evidenced by the accompanying county map, counties with recreational and ski attractions show some of the highest shares of seasonal/recreational/occasional use homes.
In Washington County, seasonal homes accounted for 13.5 percent of all housing units between 2008 and 2013, far short of the common-wisdom 20 percent. Compared to all other Utah counties, Washington County’s share of this home type ranked near the midpoint.
While some houses in this category do belong to snowbirds, many are also cabins or vacation homes, which would also cut into snowbird count. In addition, many second homes seem to be used for occasional visits rather than for extended snowbird stays.
Drilling down to the Census Bureau block group level in Washington County shows that, while the largest number of seasonal/recreational homes is located in the Green Valley area, Pine Valley Mountain and Kolob Mountain/Zion National Park block groups ranked two and three on the list. These units are most likely recreational rather than snowbird homes. The other highest density seasonal-home block groups are located in Washington City, which has a notable number of 55-and-older mobile home parks.
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Nevertheless, while the share of seasonal homes in Washington County falls behind that of many Utah counties, Washington County’s 7,900 seasonal homes accounts for almost 17 percent of Utah’s seasonal/recreational homes. Only Summit County maintains a higher number of second homes.
While the snowbird phenomenon exists to some degree in Washington County, it has far less impact than is typically supposed. Between 1990 and 2013, the share of the Washington County population 65-and-older has increased from 16 percent to 19 percent. Perhaps many of the snowbirds have transformed into permanent “staybirds.”